How do grand-narratives about World War II evoke patriotism among Russian citizens? Prospekt Magazine spoke to people from St Petersburg to explore the role of the Immortal Regiment in shaping memory in Russia, and to discover why history can be an important tool for politicians
At best, Russia’s relationship with the past is complicated. On the one hand, the state uses history to unite people, while, on the other, it rejects some of the more grim realities of the Soviet experiment, like Stalin’s notorious ‘gulag archipelago’. The last surviving camp in the gulag system—Perm 36—currently a museum commemorating the camp’s victims, has recently seen an avalanche of state pressure, including inspections, public attacks, and investigations into the museum’s financial affairs. On a wider scale, the state has also intervened in the writing of school history textbooks—a clear signal that a concerted effort is being made to expose schoolchildren to the ‘right’ version of history.
Nevertheless, elements of the Soviet Union’s traumatic past clearly persist in present-day Russia, and the political powers-that-be support and guide this historical memory. One curious example is the Bessmertniy Polk (Immortal Regiment), initiated in 2012 by citizens of the Siberian city of Tomsk. Since then, on every 9 May, Russia’s Victory day, so-called Immortal Regiment processions take place in towns and cities across Russia (and the world), in which crowds of people carry flowers and portraits of loved ones who served in World War II.
The first march of the Immortal Regiment
Three journalists were the founders of the now-annual procession. After their first event, they immediately stated that the principles of the movement were neither commercial, political nor in any way connected with the government. This was a citizen’s initiative. According to the official website, the main task of the Immortal Regiment is the “preservation of each family’s personal memory of the generation affected by the war.”
The procession gives post-Soviet people the chance to pay respect to loved ones, while simultaneously sharing stories that have been passed down through generations about their family members’ experiences of the war. Since the first march in Tomsk, the scale of the project has snowballed, with marches now taking place in a number of major cities across the globe, including Seoul, Vienna, and London.
However, the Russian government was quick to spot the initiative’s potential to unite people through a shared historical memory. The overarching narrative is that the Soviet people defeated Nazi Germany and rid the world of fascism through collective suffering. This has culminated in Vladimir Putin himself participating in the march in both 2015 and 2016, holding a portrait of his father, who fought in the war against Germany. He has, however, strongly disputed any official status behind the ‘Immortal Regiment’ action.
Despite Putin’s claims, it is evident that Russia’s political elite recognises the efficacy of certain historical events in uniting the Russian people. I asked a Russian historian from Tomsk about the evolution of the Immortal Regiment, and about how a movement which began as something apolitical evolved into something that is exploited by the state.
The historian—who asked not to be named—explained that tensions quickly developed among the founders of the march after political parties and businesses offered financial support and approached the organiser of the parade in Moscow. Though the exact arrangement between the state and the movement are not clear, he said that the original founders have become disillusioned by the politicisation of the event over the years and that Putin’s attendance can be taken as explicit evidence of his personal endorsement.
“The movement is very powerful because it can engage liberals, who [otherwise] don’t want to commemorate Stalin. It also engages conservatives because through carrying the portraits they can show their attachment with the collective,” he explains.
“It is powerful because it is so open-ended and it doesn’t have any strict ideological boundaries. Many people who take to the streets are not interested in the story behind the regiment.”
The view from the ground
What is not clear, however, is what the movement means for ordinary Russian people. How do they perceive this initiative, which aims to protect the memory of their family members who tragically died and suffered during the Second World War? Prospekt Magazine spoke to a number of Russians about their perceptions of the Immortal Regiment. Below are some of the responses.
I learned about the event from my grandfather. His life work was the restoration of the family tree. He managed to trace back several generations, and while doing so found out how many family members died as a result of the Great Patriotic War. All people are mortal, but thanks to this event we are able to change this. For me, the Immortal Regiment is an expression of deep faith in the fatherland, respect for ancestors and hope for a peaceful future.” Julia, 22.
“Going with a placard of my grandfather to the Immortal Regiment meant a lot for me, I was overwhelmed with emotions! Pride for the country, fear, pain … I began to worry about what my grandfather had been through. A sea of emotions. It is impossible to forget the great feats of the simple Russian man.” Anastasia, 19
“This movement is very valuable because it preserves the memory of the great exploits of our soldiers, their courage during the war, and it teaches younger generations about patriotism.” Sofia, 23
“I managed to see the Immortal Regiment for the first time in my life with my friends from Germany and Hungary, therefore, I have an analytical attitude towards it. Their reaction was rather sceptical, and my German friend was even a little horrified as she told me they do not have the right to remember their grandparents in such a way. It would be easy to say ‘of course you don’t, you were bad and we were good.’ But, importantly, there are no winners in the war and there are no losers, this is a common tragedy for all. It is also fair to say that if the Germans have a kind of ‘historical complex’ in regards to the Second World War, Russians, on the contrary, have excessive pride and heroism. I would like the Immortal Regiment and 9 May to be a holiday of bright memory and love, and not just about the glorification of Great Russia.” Olga, 23
“I think this is a very interesting phenomenon, showing how important it is for people to remember their relatives who experienced such a terrible time, but in the end won in a monstrously cruel war and defended their land. Perhaps, today, this is the only thing that can unite our people so much, irrespective of what social class, profession or nationality you belong to.” Janna, 38
Clearly, the people we spoke to viewed the Immortal Regiment as a celebration of the sacrifices of their ancestors. The majority of respondents immediately made the connection between the initiative and patriotism. Patriotism in Russia is a powerful idea; Putin himself has even claimed that it is the only possible concept that can unite the country. It is a robust antithesis to western liberalism, and, critically, it is a notion shared by almost all Russians. As such, it would seem only logical for the Kremlin to monopolise any events that unite the Russian people in the way that the Immortal Regiment does. While Russia’s relationship with the past remains plagued by ambiguity, one thing is certain: pride for those that fought and died for the motherland is a concept that unites almost everyone.
The Immortal Regiment march will take place on 9 May in St Petersburg. It starts at 3 pm and will travel from Vosstaniya Square to Palace Square. You can find more details about the parade on the official Bessmertniy Polk website.